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Shortly after midnight on March 11, the first day of free agency in the NFL, Washington Redskins vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato called the agent for quarterback Todd Collins to arrange for Collins to visit the Redskins. A backup with the Kansas City Chiefs for the past eight seasons, Collins was on a fishing trip in the Bahamas, but the Washington brass didn't want to wait for him to return. Cerrato told agent Brad Blank that the Redskins would send owner Dan Snyder's private plane to the Bahamas to pick up Collins. Blank said that wasn't necessary; Collins would be happy to fly commercial. But Cerrato insisted, so 13 hours later, Snyder's plane touched down in Freeport and whisked Collins to Redskin Park.
Now, one can understand the Redskins' sending a private jet to impress a top free agent such as wideout Antwaan Randle El of the Super Bowl--champion Pittsburgh Steelers--which they did--but for Collins? A quarterback who since the end of the 1997 season hasn't started a game and has thrown 27 passes? The tactic didn't hurt. Less than 48 hours after Cerrato's call, Collins and the Redskins had agreed on a two-year, $2.5 million deal for the 34-year-old journeyman to carry a clipboard behind Mark Brunell and Jason Campbell.
Year in and year out, no team is more aggressive in the early days of free agency than Snyder's Redskins. But this year Washington is getting a run for its money in the frantic race to find quarterbacks. In the first seven days of free agency 16 teams changed their No. 1 or No. 2 quarterback, or both. Within an hour of each other on March 14 two Pro Bowl passers moved to new teams--former San Diego Charger Drew Brees signed a free-agent deal with the New Orleans Saints, and Daunte Culpepper went from the Minnesota Vikings to the Miami Dolphins in a trade. Though the Dolphins won their final six games of last season with Gus Frerotte as the starter, they still dealt for the injured Culpepper; Frerotte quickly signed as a backup with the St. Louis Rams. "Quarterback roulette," CBS analyst and former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms called it on Sunday.
Nowhere did the wheel spin as fast as it did in Detroit. At the end of last season the Lions' quarterback depth chart read Joey Harrington, Jeff Garcia, Dan Orlovsky. By last Thursday it was Jon Kitna, Josh McCown, Shaun King. After four turbulent seasons Harrington was finished with the Lions, new coach Rod Marinelli saying on Monday that the team had "made a decision to move on." The veteran Garcia was in Philadelphia, having signed as a free agent to back up Donovan McNabb. Of last year's three signal-callers in Detroit, only Orlovsky, a 2005 fifth-round draft choice out of Connecticut, remained with the Lions, to fight for the third-string job.
Harrington, the third pick in the 2002 draft, failed to live up to his billing--his record as a starter was 18-37, with a 68.1 passer rating--but the swiftness of his falling out with the team nevertheless was surprising. Marinelli, who joined Detroit in January, had given the quarterback a qualified vote of confidence, and as recently as two weeks ago new offensive coordinator Mike Martz said he was eager to retool Harrington's game. But a quarterback camp convened two weeks ago by Martz was not the fresh start the Lions were looking for.
Complicating Harrington's situation was a clause in his six-year, $36.5 million contract. With a $4 million roster bonus due on June 15, he would have cost Detroit $12 million against its 2006 salary cap. The Lions had hoped Harrington would agree to restructure the remaining two years of his deal, but Harrington balked, knowing he had leverage. By refusing to renegotiate, he would force the Lions to pay the bonus or release him before the deadline, making him a free agent.
It's clear that big roster bonuses and early free agency now make teams less patient with young quarterbacks. "Before free agency," says Texans general manager Charley Casserly, "there was no limit on how long you kept a guy. Now there is."
A struggling quarterback's high visibility doesn't help. "More than ever," Simms says, "the quarterback is getting the brunt of the dissatisfaction from fans and teams when a team loses. If you're unhappy, change the quarterback. It's knee-jerk." Adds Buffalo Bills general manager Marv Levy, "Peyton Manning was 3-13 as a rookie. Troy Aikman was 0-11. There's no more patience. That's why I wonder if it's worthwhile drafting a quarterback in the first round. The fans are saying, 'Get him in there. He's the answer.' And when he isn't, it's, 'Oh my gosh, what did you do? You were so stupid.' But it takes a while to develop a quarterback."
So, like many of their colleagues around the league, Marinelli and Martz are starting with a clean slate. The 33-year-old Kitna, the presumed front-runner in Detroit, may not have the physical tools of Harrington, but he's smart, tough and selfless. After having brought the Cincinnati Bengals to the brink of the playoffs as the starter in 2003, he spent the last two seasons playing the good soldier as the backup to Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer. Kitna didn't complain, but he wanted to compete for a starting job again, and it didn't take long for him to realize Detroit was the right place. "What I love about Rod Marinelli is that he says the best guys will play," notes Kitna. "He doesn't care about [contracts] or experience or anything else, and that's the way it should be. If somebody else is better than me, he should play. If I'm better, I should play. That's how you win."
Though the Lions weren't as brash in their pursuit of Kitna as the Redskins were with Collins, they displayed similar verve. Kitna, a devout Christian, appreciated that when he had lunch with Marinelli and Lions president Matt Millen, the team chaplain joined them. The quarterback also liked the Lions' emphasis on leadership, accountability and discipline in the locker room--all of which he attributes to the Bengals' turnaround--and he relished the opportunity to work with young receivers Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams in the same way he helped Chad Johnson become a better route runner in Cincinnati. In fact, Kitna says he was so impressed with Marinelli that he was ready to sign with the Lions after meeting with the coach for 30 minutes.